In a famous koan Zennists recognize, Zen master Yunmen has some questions for us.
Master Yúnmén mentioned a monk who said to Zhàozhōu, “I have just joined the monastery and ask for your teaching.” Zhàozhōu asked: “Have you already eaten your gruel?” When the monk affirmed, Zhàozhōu said: “Go wash your bowl!” Master Yúnmén said: “Well, tell me, was what Zhàozhōu said a teaching or not? If you say that it was, what is it that Zhàozhōu told the monk? If you say it wan’t a teaching, why did the monk in question attain awakening?”
If Zen is about awakening to our true nature which is unconditioned; which transcends the psycho-physical body (i.e., the five skandhas) which is conditioned, then when Zhàozhōu said to the new monk, “Go wash your bowl!” whatever thoughts the monk had about the true teaching were, suddenly, wiped away so that only pure Mind remained.
Next, if Zhàozhōu’s words were not a teaching, how then did the monk manage to awaken by a non-teaching?
It is more than often the case that the words and gestures of a Zen master in responding to the monks are not, in some cryptic way, a true statement about awakening, but rather a way to shut off thought (i.e., the process of thinking) so as to reveal the essence of Mind. It’s like a sudden, loud shout. This is meant to freeze thought to reveal Mind. In other examples. the Zen master demonstrates Mind by moving his staff, or standing up and walking away.
Always the goal of the Zen master is to help the student realize Mind which is unconditioned and transcendent; which is also the animative principle of the body. What gets in his way is the student’s addiction to thought, the activity of thinking. The only way to reveal Mind is by no-thought. "Go wash your bowl!"